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Posts published in “Life in Durham”

‘You are not alone’: Signs of a pandemic

To break through the deluge of headlines and non-stop news alerts about COVID-19, many people have reverted to an old form of information sharing: a Sharpie and a sheet of paper. 

In this strange time of distance and sheltering-in-place, signs seem to greet us more often than people. They are placeholders of the reality we once knew, the restaurants and coffee shops we visited, the schools we attended, and the parks we lounged in on Sunday afternoons. They are now silenced, explained by a few scrawled words of instructions, explanations or well wishes. Like buildings with speech bubbles, the conversational nature of these notices gives life to dark news. 

Photo by Carmela Guaglianone

“OPEN FOR LUNCH” shouts the sign outside Skewers on Main Street. It usually boasts Open Mic Nights or Karaoke, but it’s now trying to convey the simple message that Skewers is still in business.  That tactic is being used by many restaurants and businesses, to simply reassure customers that a store is still alive. Some have an artistic flair, like Michoacan Mexican Restaurant’s “Open/ Take Out & Delivery” sign, spruced up with an emphatic blue marker. Shooters II opted for a sweet farewell, “Be Safe/ See Y’all Soon.”  At the Italian Pizzeria on Hillsborough Road, the sign says, “Everything will be okay… Love and Teamwork always wins.” 

Businesses are also using their signs to share changes in procedures for our strange COVID-19 world. “Please keep an 8 ft distance between yourself and other pick-up folks!!” reads a printed sign attached to a traffic cone outside Cocoa Cinnamon on Geer Street.

Photo by Corey Pilson

Most signs are concise, but not at K Nails, a nail salon on Hillsborough Road. It has two signs, both full paragraphs describing their plans regarding the changes. One details changes in the usual cleaning routine to be more conducive to virus protection, asking customers to “wash their hands prior to being seated.” The other, apparently posted later, informs of a short closure, citing it as the toughest choice they have ever had to make. 

With advice and understanding surrounding the virus that is constantly changing, this transparency of businesses offers comfort. Customers are getting a personal look at the way restaurants, stores, and salons are adapting. “We’re Still Here (we’re just hiding),” promises a bright pink flyer outside Durham Short Run Shirts. It says they’re now selling online, and it signs off, “Stay Safe + Stay Healthy.”

Photo by Corey Pilson

Electronic boards outside schools and colleges blare LED messages that seem to be a mix of outdated information and not-so-subtle attempts to exercise waning authority. Hillside High School’s sign has clearly not been updated since the statewide mandate that schools close until May 17th, and its hopeful blue “Classes Resume April 6th” carries an unrealistic  cheerfulness. 

Duke’s East Campus Trail, teeming with people on their daily walks, has many lawn signs that say “Duke/ We’re In This Together / Keep Your Distance,” which seems like an oxymoron. Other signs use levity, like NCCU’s cheeky light-up billboard, using its eagle mascot to exemplify an adequate social distance. 

Signs on the Al Buehler Trail take a more serious tone. “DO NOT USE FITNESS STATIONS” says a laminated sign on the fitness loop, accented with a decorative stop sign to convey a tone of urgency. “Observe social distancing” it states later — not a suggestion but a demand. Another one, next to the public fountains, says, “WATER FOUNTAINS ARE TEMPORARILY SHUT OFF TO REDUCE PUBLIC INTERACTION.” 

Other signs are poignant, offering messages of hope or simple solidarity. “You are not alone,” says one drawn with a rainbow of colored pencils that is posted on a residence hall door on Duke’s West Campus.

Top photo by Corey Pilson | The 9th Street Journal

‘Wipes are not flushable’: Inside Durham’s toilet paper freak-out

In stores around Durham, aisles usually well-diversified with toilet paper brands endorsed by happy bear families and cherubic mascots are barren. A sign above the depleted shelves at the Target on 15/501 declares, “Due to high demand and to support all guests, we will be limiting the quantities of toilet paper, flushable wipes and facial tissue to 1 each per guest.”  

These are dire times. One unanticipated consequence of the coronavirus crisis is a nationwide shortage of toilet paper, as well as tissues and (now-infamous) flushable wipes.  It’s not just Target. The shelves echo emptiness at Harris Teeter, Costco, Whole Foods and just about any other Durham store that sells it.

The void in the home-goods aisles has made room for Durhamites to step in. Listservs, Facebook groups, and Instagram posts show how the community has come together to help people cope with the toilet paper turmoil. 

On one Durham email thread, a woman offered up her own recent shipment from Who Gives A Crap, a specialty retailer that sells a version said to be 100% recycled.  She emphasized that she was not amassing a supply of the paper (which has become a bit of a taboo, particularly in community-minded Durham), but was simply a long-time subscriber to the service. The woman, ironically enough, did seem to give a crap: Her goal was to donate toilet paper to groups that may have a harder time obtaining it during the COVID-19 crisis such as the elderly or immunocompromised. 

Scott Sellers, a father of two, is also attempting to pass some TP under the stall, so to speak. He and a few of the other younger members of the listserv have banded together to run errands for those more at risk – and make sure they get the toilet paper they need. The effort, he says, is “emphasizing the best about us.” 

Sellers has heard some horror stories of stockpiling. 

“Harris Teeter restocks [toilet paper] at 6:30 a.m.,” he says, “and people are waiting in line until they run out.”

He is still scratching his head to understand the hoarding culture. His theory is that toilet paper is tangible.

“You can’t see this virus but you can see the toilet paper,” he says. Leaving a store with four 12-packs of Charmin or Angel Soft, in the face of mounting unpredictability, feels productive. 

People seem to crave this feeling. Throughout the county, there is a dull quiet. Workplaces are closed, stores are shuttered. People are seeking control – so they stock their pantries, and they fill linen closets, with toilet paper. 

A coping mechanism, “that’s probably what it is,” Sellers says. “Like, this gives me a piece of anchoring during this completely uncertain time.”

Empty shelves at the Target on 15/501.

David Matthews, the branch manager of Not Just Paper, an office and school supply store on Main Street, is also trying to understand the obsession. He agrees that it’s less about the use and more about the preparation. When expecting a child, this concept is called nesting – the urge to create a comfy space for the new baby. When expecting a pandemic, it’s about preparing the nest for an unclear future.

“People are unfamiliar with what all these stay-in-place orders mean and we feel insecure,” he says. “Word got out that you have to have your basic supplies and when you think about it, (toilet paper) is a basic supply people take for granted.”

He thinks there’s a bit of groupthink, too. “It gets your attention when you see the shelves empty.” Everyone is wondering why their friends and neighbors are stocking up, but don’t want to be the ones caught empty-handed. 

People have traveled far, from Rocky Mount and Jackson County, to visit his store. So he is loudly marketing their stash: a sign out front boasts, “We have toilet paper!”

“Supply and demand,” he points out. “We have it; other people don’t.” 

Not Just Paper is one of the many retailers that has taken to establishing a limit per customer, in an effort to flatten the curve on stockpiling. “I want to make sure there’s enough for everyone,” Matthews explains. 

At the end of the day, Matthews isn’t worrying about the psychology behind the hoarding. Like Sellers and the listserv volunteers, he just wants customers to know he can help. And while they’re not just paper – they do have plenty of it. 

And finally, some discouraging news for those who have not been so lucky in their bathroom stashing and have attempted to get creative. Flushable wipes, which are likewise beginning to sell out (much to the chagrin of city officials) are meant to serve as a TP alternative and dissolve in the sewer. Indeed, Cottonelle, the self-ascribed “No. 1 Flushable Wipe Brand among national flushable wipes brands,” claims to begin this dissolving process right after flushing. 

The city of Durham begs to differ. 

“Wipes are not flushable — no matter what the ads want us to believe!” their Instagram, @cityofdurhamnc, posted recently. The post goes on to implore residents to discontinue use of the products, which can clog home plumbing or sewer lines. It sums up the warning by urging followers to “#protectyourpipes,” perhaps in a wink to the respiratory pandemic causing the surge in stocking. 

At top, a sign outside Not Just Paper. Photo by Carmela Guaglianone | The 9th Street Journal

The board: cancellations, uncertainty, and hope on a bulletin board on 9th Street

The building is empty and the sun-bleached paint is peeling, but the wall of Ninth Street’s now-defunct clothing store, Native Threads, is still alive with a kaleidoscope of brightly colored flyers. 

The makeshift bulletin board, an old-school way to learn about events in the area, stands as a snapshot of what life had in store before the COVID-19 shutdown. Concerts, comedy shows, and meditation classes have been canceled as chaos and social distance overtake the Triangle. 

We tracked down the performers and organizers behind some of the flyers. 


The flyer for The Bright Side Conference is, appropriately enough, quite bubbly. It promotes “a gathering high-fiving women for where they’re at now and helping them get to where they want to go.” But, with high-fiving recently deemed unsafe, the event won’t be held as planned in Raleigh.

Still, the Bright Side Conference “was always about optimism,” said organizer Jess Ekstrom, and she has adapted. With unpredictability being just about the only predictable thing in our lives, Ekstrom and her team are still leaning into their hopeful message: “We need (optimism) now more than ever.” 

The conference will go on, but not exactly as planned. The organizers have shifted gears to make the whole thing virtual — which, Ekstrom said, came with an unforeseen slew of benefits. She invoked a phrase that a friend has been using: “With new problems come new solutions.” 

The conference, originally open only to women, is now open to anyone. The virtual platform also allows self-paced access to talks and workshops that never expire on topics such as yoga, meditation, and art. The team has been able to invite more speakers now that travel is not a consideration, and their message is reaching more people and possibly having “a greater ripple effect.”

Ekstrom said the whole episode is a reminder to be flexible and learn. “Sometimes we think because something was our original plan, it was right,” Ekstrom said. In having to reevaluate her plans, she has found that there are “things in store for us that we don’t even know about.” 

This has created a shift in the conference’s central theme as well; it will now focus on “the future and how we can remain optimistic.” 

Ekstrom graduated from North Carolina State University with a bachelor’s degree in communication and media studies in 2013. Since then, she has started two businesses, made a name for herself as a public speaker, and recently published a book titled, appropriately enough, “Chasing the Bright Side.” The book emphasizes using optimism as a tool to create the life you want to live. She got her start in college, when she founded a company called Headbands of Hope that donated a headband to a child with cancer for every headband sold. 

“I had no idea what I was doing but had this belief that I could make the future better,” she said.

She has taken a similar approach for the Bright Side Conference. Since participants won’t be getting swag bags, the conference is donating them to nurses and hospital staffers. 

Yet even Ekstrom sometimes finds it tough to see the bright side. “It’s been one moment I’m like, ‘this is great,’ and then the next moment I get sucked into a dark hole on Twitter,” she admitted. She described it all as “an emotional roller coaster” but maintained a sense of hope. Like so many, Ekstrom is finding solace in the community that will come of this strange and unknown time. 

“It’s affecting everyone,” she noted, “and that’s the good and the bad part. But there’s so much unity in that.”


The flyer for “The Rebecca Show” features two women striking thoughtful poses. Rebecca Fox and Rebecca Jackson-Artis are pondering one of life’s most pressing questions, the title of their performance at the Pure Life Theatre in Raleigh: “What if I’m The Becky?” Their website describes Becky as “a catch-all name for a white woman who doesn’t get it … is that redundant?” 

The show, now postponed, was going to cover “sexism, racism, violence, the brutality of motherhood, exploitation in sports, regrets in old age, and the dynamics of changing friendships.” 

Fox said the two “are proud to have made a decisive, timely choice” in pushing the performance back. The Manbites Dog Theater Fund, which was sponsoring the show, “has given all the recipients an extension,” according to Fox. 

Fox, a bilingual speech language pathologist, teacher, performer and mother, said she is now focused on taking care of her children, who are out of school. She is not yet sure when performing will be back on her mind. 

“I’m anticipating that we will all be inside for a long time,” Fox said, adding, “I’m hopeful that after my family and I have established some semblance of a new routine, I’ll be able to carve out some time and energy for work and a creative life again.”

It’s a time of uncertainty.

“As with so many things,” she said, “it’s TBD.” 


“Tibetan Lama Geshe Denma will introduce practices of Nine Breaths of Purification and Tsa Lung,” promises one flyer, advertising a weekend of Tibetan Yogas of Body and Breath. 

It says the Nine Breaths of Purification “is a simple yet powerful practice for clearing our relationships to attachment, aversion and ignorance by regulating our breath and bringing awareness to the movement of the winds in the channels.”  Tsa Lung teaches exercises that cleanse the chakras. The flyer notes that these are “movements easily learned and benefits quickly felt.”

Unfortunately, the weekend of meditative practice has been canceled, leaving the chakras of many Durhamites clogged in the weeks to come. Lama Geshe Denma, who was born in Nepal and trained in India, was coming to Durham from a nearby retreat in Virginia. Now that he will no longer be passing through, it would be a challenge to reschedule. 

But yogi and event sponsor John Gordon Moore has found peace with the decision. “Although I was certainly disappointed that the workshop had to be canceled,” he said, “it also provides an opportunity to practice contentment, and to gracefully accept whatever life offers.” 

Moore, a Durham local since 1999, has been teaching yoga since 1987, and in his many years with the practice he has come to learn that it is “not only about flexibility of body but also of mind.” He mentioned that this time of reassessment and finding grace in the midst of disorder reminds him of an old Sanskrit word, “Santosa.” The word embodies a profound sense of comfortability or contentment. 

Already, the quietness that life has taken on has prompted contemplation in Moore. “Surprised isn’t the right word,” he mused, “I’m impressed by the ways the community is coming together.” 

Photos by Carmela Guaglianone. 

Are local book stores endangered? Not in Durham

Ever since large chain bookstores and Amazon took over the bookselling market, popular culture has often relegated the independent bookstore to a thing of the past, painting it as a quiet space filled with stacks of aging, dusty books.  

In reality, independent bookstores are thriving  — especially in Durham, where there are at least five, including one that opened just last year. 

In fact, there was a 35% increase in the number of independent bookstores in the U.S. between 2009 and 2015, and their profits have continued to rise, according to the American Booksellers Association

Durham authors, researchers and bookstore owners say that independent bookstores continue to be successful because they serve as community hubs, each with their own distinct personality and specific niche of books.  

“Independent bookstores simply are cultural centers and community resources in a way an online retailer is not,” said Orin Starn, a history and cultural anthropology professor at Duke University who has published several books and sold them at The Regulator in Durham. 

Over the past several decades, the bookselling industry has seen drastic changes. In the 1970s, almost every bookstore in the country was independent, owned and operated by locals, according to a 2017 Harvard study

When chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders opened in the 1990s and offered customers a more convenient book buying experience, many independent stores went out of business. The creation of Amazon exacerbated their decline: The number of independent stores fell 43% between 1995 and 2000, according to the American Booksellers Association. 

Then, things changed. Amazon’s cheap prices and quick delivery pushed chain bookstores out. Borders went out of business in 2011; Barnes & Noble has been suffering from declining sales for the past five years. 

Meanwhile, independent bookstores reemerged as a small but significant player.

“People like to live in the physical world and not always on the computer,” said Land Arnold, owner of Durham’s Letters Bookshop. 

Besides providing a physical space to browse, independent bookstores appeal to their local customers by promoting a sense of community through events, including author talks and open mic nights. Most also sell merchandise like vintage ads, postcards, buttons, and stationary. 

Independent bookstores often serve as community hubs, hosting events and book readings. Photo by Corey Pilson

Starn, the Duke professor and author, said “bookstores have been a magnificent thing for Durham by providing community events and supporting local authors with book rollout parties.”

Durham’s bookstore scene is still growing. Last year, David Bradley opened his bookstore, Golden Fig Books on a stretch of Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard that holds lots of small, local businesses. The store has tall, black bookshelves that make the colors of the books pop, small reading nooks near large windows and shiny hardwood floors.

Bradley said Durham bookstores are successful because they each create unique experiences for customers. 

“There should be certain values that each bookstore holds, a different ambience and an eye on developing trends and interests within the community,” he said.

In addition to used books, Golden Fig Books sells t-shirts, pin and tote bags, and hosts community events such as author talks and literary trivia nights. Bradley said he thinks there’s an “increased appetite” in the Triangle for these community spaces. 

Still, running an independent bookstore is challenging.

“My main competition is getting the word out about my bookstore and being noticed in the marketplace,” Bradley said. 

Other bookstores in Durham utilize similar strategies to attract customers. The Regulator Bookshop, near Duke University, has been around since 1976. It hosts events like story time for children and a poetry series. It also offers discounts for students and teachers and provides books to local organizations like the Durham Literacy Center and the N.C. Women’s Prison Book Project. 

Wentworth and Leggett Books, which has been in Durham for 37 years, specializes in antiquarian books, hosts live music, and sells antique maps, postcards, prints, and magazine ads.

For many customers, these places have become resilient community anchors — and a better alternative to shopping online. 

“People don’t want to buy their books in a cookie cutter way,” Starn said. “In an independent bookstore, you can see people you know, pick up books, start to read them, and browse in a way that is somehow not exactly the same experience as online.”

Top photo: The Golden Fig Bookstore in Durham. Photo by Corey Pilson

Scrap Exchange repurposing Lakewood Shopping Center

When the Scrap Exchange moved into Durham’s Lakewood Shopping Center in 2014, the mall had fallen far from its days in the 1960s as a hotspot for shopping, swimming and skating. Buildings were empty and in disrepair. 

The nonprofit — which promotes reuse by selling items and materials that might otherwise end up in a landfill — made its new home in an abandoned movie theater. It has spent six years working to bring life back to the area. 

Now, Ann Woodward, a longtime Scrap Exchange employee, has an even more ambitious vision: a project called the Reuse Arts District (RAD), which she is spearheading on her own.

Led by Woodward and established as a separate nonprofit by the Scrap Exchange, RAD will be a community hub with eight reuse arts programs, nonprofits and shops, affordable housing units, community gardens, a sculpture park, a basketball court, a skateboard park and a playground. 

The nonprofit has raised tens of millions of dollars for the project, which is progressing but not moving as quickly as Scrap Exchange originally envisioned.

When completed, RAD is expected to create 25 full-time jobs with benefits. The organization has partnered with nine local agencies, some of which manage employment re-entry programs for veterans, formerly incarcerated people and seniors. The hope is for many employees to live in the affordable housing units that will eventually be built on the property.

“Creating a space where everyone can live, work, play, shop, recreate, be comfortable going outside—that’s what we’re working towards,” Woodward said.  

Since its founding in 1991, the Scrap Exchange has hosted countless community meet-up programs, school field trips and workshops about how to reuse materials for both art and everyday purposes. 

The Scrap Exchange says it saves 167 tons of the 11 million tons of waste generated in North Carolina from going to landfills each year. By adding the eight new reuse arts programs—a music production studio, a Recycle-A-Bicycle shop, an architectural salvage spot to resell construction waste—the organization expects that number to grow significantly.

RAD will reuse the buildings in the shopping center rather tearing down and rebuilding new. The organization has faced some criticism from residents who claim the project will gentrify the area. Woodward disagrees. 

“If you move into an abandoned location, you are revitalizing, you are not kicking anybody out,” she said. “I look at the high-rise retail things that are going up all over Durham — like, that’s gentrification.” 

A community garden at the Scrap Exchange location. Photo by Corey Pilson

Woodward added that the model for development is designed “to help stabilize communities” through neighborhood integration, job creation and quality affordable housing for people in Durham who are making less $12.28 an hour, the city’s living wage, including those who work for the Scrap Exchange and its neighbors. 

But the project is slow-moving. The first phase of the plan was to lease 105,000 square feet of the mall to tenants who fit the family-friendly vision of the space by 2017.

The expected completion date, however, was pushed back to the end of 2020 because of the time it’s taken to find the right tenants.

RAD has secured leases for all but two of its biggest properties and plans to finalize those this year. Woodward said she rejected multiple applicants, like tobacco or gambling shops, in favor of waiting for more community-focused tenants like El Futuro, a mental health facility for Latino families, a craft store, a food pantry, a music hall and a thrift store. 

“I feel like we have a really good mix of social services and some for-profit businesses as well [that are] related to the arts,” Woodward said. 

The second phase is fundraising and planning for the housing and commercial development on the property. Though the RAD has had a community garden since 2015, other community amenities are lacking.

According to Woodward, RAD still needs to look for a majority of their project partners before plans are more concrete. 

The Scrap Exchange got a $2.5 million loan from the North Carolina Community Development Initiative Capital, which funds community development, and is conducting a feasibility study for the project until 2021 to see how much more funding is necessary. The project also has a $1 million loan from Duke University and $6.2 million in loans from nonprofit lender Self Help Ventures Fund. 

The organization wants to ultimately raise $100 million to establish the National Center for Creative Reuse, which would function as a national hub for mentorship on how other cities can form reuse economies.

RAD has full support from the city council and mayor, which agreed to give $660,000 for affordable housing. The organization has 10 years to use the grant. The plan is to build a minimum of 33 affordable housing units, but the space allows for a total of 170 units. 

“I think it could be transformative for that neighborhood,” said Durham Mayor Steve Schewel. 

He added that nobody on the city council had any objections to the funding proposal. “It was very enthusiastically received.”

Top photo: The Scrap Exchange is building a community hub and affordable housing at the Lakewood Shopping Center. Photo by Corey Pilson

Once a plantation, Stagville helps African Americans find traces of enslaved ancestors

Durham native Wilma Liverpool walked into Stagville State Historic Site on a recent Saturday with a single piece of paper in her hand and many questions. 

The folded paper was a photocopy of the court document that freed her enslaved ancestor, Franky Liverpool, in 1803 after her owner died. The document described her as a woman of “yellow complexion,” meaning that her mother or a grandmother was likely raped by a white man, Wilma Liverpool suspects. 

Clues to many injustices were stored in the document. Franky’s last name floats above her first name, inserted with a caret. “An afterthought,” Liverpool said.

The Liverpool family has celebrated Franky’s birthday every year since they discovered this document a couple of years back. But they still wonder about their other enslaved ancestors. 

Wilma Liverpool holds a copy of a document showing Franky Liverpool was freed from slavery in 1803. Photo by Victoria Eavis

That’s why Liverpool went to Family History Day at what was once a large plantation. There staff and exhibitors shared resources available to African Americans trying to find information about enslaved ancestors, whether they were held in captivity at Stagville or not. 

The vast majority of people enslaved in the United States were prohibited from reading, writing, attending school, legally marrying or owning land or a business. Paper trails for those basic aspects of life now serve as the inroads into personal genealogical research for most Americans.

When African Americans attempt to trace their family tree, many often cannot dig deeper than the late 1860s. It was only after the Civil War ended that the U.S. census started recording African American people as more than just numbers. 

According to the U.S. National Archives, the 1870 census was the first to record African Americans by name and it often serves as the first official record of a surname for former slaves. Their age and place of birth was also recorded in that census.

Before the Civil War, more than 900 enslaved people lived at Stagville, making it one of the largest plantations in North Carolina. The Cameron and Bennehan families owned the 30,000 acres of land. The historic site occupies a small portion of that land. 

Because written records of enslaved people are so scant, sometimes the only trace of those who endured forced labor and captivity over generations are anonymous. That is the case with this fingerprint in a brick preserved in a building at Stagville. Photo by Corey Pilson

Records of enslaved people were just tallies on a census listed under a slave owner’s name at some plantations. But the Camerons kept detailed records of purchases and sales of individuals, records that help their descendants trace their ancestors today.

People attending the family history event learned about Stagville’s records and more. Representatives from UNC Greensboro’s The Digital Library on American Slavery briefed visitors about their newest project, People Not Property: Slave Deeds of North Carolina.

Slave deeds are property deeds that slave owners filed with county courts that contain invaluable information about enslaved people. These individuals may only be recorded by number, but more often they are listed by name and age, which provides crucial information for historians and genealogists.

Jennette Thompson was one of the visitors in search of answers about her family tree at Stagville’s Family Day. Photo by Corey Pilson

The UNC project focuses on compiling and digitizing slave deeds. People Not Property: Slave Deeds of North Carolina is projected to make those records accessible to the public within the next year, said Brian Robinson, a curator at UNC Greensboro. 

Stagville’s table displayed large handwritten family trees of the families who were enslaved at the plantation. The diagrams were drawn into a large booklet that took up most of the table. They were cumbersome to flip through, but guests went at the awkward task with intrigue and determination.  

One visitor was Jennette Thompson. Thompson’s great grandmother, Bertha Meeks, was enslaved at Stagville, she said. She suspected that she may also be related to the Justice family, another family enslaved there, which is why she wanted to look at the site’s records. 

Staff members are moved by the quests. “You see the excitement in their faces,” said Khadija McNair, Stagville’s assistant site manager said about the people who dive into the records. “They’re finding out about who they are as a person.” 

A rendering of the Hart family tree displayed at Stagville. Photo by Victoria Eavis

Not every former plantation site delves deep into the atrocities that happened on their land the way like Stagville does, said site manager Vera Cecelski. Today, a number of former plantations maintain the big white house and willow tree trope, advertising themselves as picturesque locales to host events and weddings. 

“Stagville is a plantation site that’s focused on telling stories about slavery, enslaved people, and  the history of white supremacy in an honest and ethical way,” said Cecelski.

Despite outreach events such as Family History Day, both Cecelski and McNair voiced concern that some Durhamites don’t know that Stagville exists. 

“Right now a real goal for our site is to have a deeper engagement with Durham and to have more people in Durham understand that Stagville is here as a resource to engage with,” Cecelski said. 

Nonetheless, the open house was a bustling day. 

“Tell ‘em freedom is on the rise!,” Wilma Liverpool exclaimed as she left. “Look out!”

At top: Stagville State Historic Site displayed a ledger that logged precious information about people once enslaved there. One entry reads: Aggy, daughter of Daniel and Molly, born August 1781. Photo by Corey Pilson


In downtown Durham, overflow crowd greets Bernie Sanders

A thin, black folding wall cut U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’s Durham rally in half.

On one side was the Durham Convention Center’s main ballroom, filled wall to wall — and to capacity — with ardent supporters of the Democratic presidential candidate front-runner. On the other: a smaller, darker overflow room for latecomers to the Valentine’s Day rally.

Fresh off winning the New Hampshire primary, Sanders spent part of the week campaigning around North Carolina, a key Super Tuesday state. A reported 3,100 people showed up in Durham. 

Fifteen minutes before it started, Greg West hovered near the barrier. “I’m waiting for my wife, we got separated,” said West, who showed up to the event two hours early.

But no one, besides the brave few slipping past security, was getting in. It looked like his wife would have to miss this one.

“Nobody else can come into this ballroom at the time,” announced the assistant fire marshal, who said the temporary wall held back some 300 people — a diverse, young crowd united in their desire to make it into the main hall and their frustration with the capacity limit. 

As West explained why he planned to vote for Sanders — a track record of consistency, a strong vision of change — his phone screen lit up and a poppy, marimba-snare ringtone started playing. His wife was calling. She had made it back to the main room, where dozens of cameras were trained on a wide stage set for Sanders. He went to join her. 

Dozens of others ended up in the overflow room, where audio of the speeches played over loudspeakers. By 11:30 a.m., local progressive politicians like Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson, Durham County Commissioner candidate Nida Allam and State Senate candidate Pierce Freelon, warmed up the mic. Each echoed Sanders’s calls for radical change and reminding people to support down ballot candidates. The packed crowd in the main ballroom hung to their words, tossing up “Bernie” signs, clapping on queue and quieting down to listen. 

Those scattered in the overflow room chatted among themselves, biding time as they waited to hear Sanders’s voice. For a few minutes, former Ohio state senator and Sanders campaign co-chair Nina Turner stopped by the small corner stage with locally beloved “Bull Durham” star Susan Sarandon, briefly firing up the crowd by telling them they had the power to change America.  

Sanders visits the overflow room at his Durham rally. 9th Street Journal photo by Jake Sheridan

Diana Lynn, a self-identified member of the “Yang Gang” — fans of technology entrepreneur and former candidate Andrew Yang — said she was looking for “a new ship to jump on” after he recently dropped out of the race. Lynn hadn’t been able to arrive on time because of work, she said, and wore her green Harris Teeter uniform shirt inside out. Still, she was happy to have a chance to hear Sanders. 

“People want a revolution,” Lynn said. “They’re beyond fed up. That’s how we got Trump.”

Fernando Bretos, who said he will vote for Sanders, also ended up in the overflow room after coming from work. 

“It’s kind of nice that there is an overflow room, but of course I want to be in there with them,” said Bretos, a marine biologist concerned about climate change. “I kind of regret not going with Bernie the first time. I’m just going with passion and ingenuity. He speaks to me.”

Then, Sanders really did speak to Bretos. To shock and excitement, the Democratic hopeful surprised supporters and took the overflow room stage. 

“The good news is we have a standing room crowd over there,” Sanders said, pointing to the wall separating them from the ballroom. “The bad news is you could not get in.”

He touted his victory in New Hampshire and promised wins to come. He listed a string of policies to cheers and the names of enemies — “the military industrial complex, the prison industrial complex, the whole damn one percent” — to boo’s. He summarized his platform into “two basic things”: beating Donald Trump, and transforming the government and economy “so it represents all of us.” 

After six minutes, Sanders left to go give a longer version of his stump speech to the main room. Most of the overflow crowd left, too. 

On the way out, Lynn said she appreciated Sanders’s appearance, but was still undecided between him and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

As he headed back to work, Bretos said Sanders’s quick stop gave him goosebumps. 

“It felt like a community. Like I’m not alone,” Bretos said. “Since I’ve gone to Bernie world, a lot of friends and Democrats have kind of been jabbing me, questioning me, so it’s nice to feel like I’m part of a community, to feel like I belong.” 

At top: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders visits with supporters before his rally in Durham on Feb. 14. 9th Street Journal photo by Jake Sheridan.

One year into NorthStar’s quest to grow spirituality and community with art

All who entered NorthStar Church of the Arts one night last month passed an artist’s rendering of Colin Kaepernick. A halo-like shape circled the activist quarterback’s head; a rope noose hung around his neck. Nearby was a mixed-media image of a crying woman with a slave ship nestled in her hair. 

At the launch of the newest issue of Southern Cultures, a Center for the Study of the American South quarterly, every seat and slab of wall was full. 

The following night the doors opened to the scent of generously buttered popcorn and squeals of small children running at top speed. The room was not pushing capacity, but a bright energy surged for a Dolly Parton birthday party. NorthStar had four hours blocked off for Dolly trivia and a “9 to 5” screening. 

NorthStar Church of the Arts is a venue housed in a Gothic Revival former church near Durham’s Central Park. Phil and Nnenna Freelon, accomplished in architecture and jazz respectively, founded it to be a “sacred space” where arts and the spiritual connect.

Dolly Parton is a saint on a candle displayed during her birthday celebration at NorthStar Church of the Arts. 9th Street Journal photo by Victoria Eavis

“We are trying to bridge the gap between what religion and art does for people. I feel called as an artist to pick up the slack that religion is dropping the ball on,” said Kamara Thomas, a member of NorthStar’s board.

Nearly one year after its official launch, NorthStar is forging its identity. An arts venue to showcase local minority artists first and foremost, it sometimes invites people in to bop to “Jolene.”

“NorthStar is very much a product of Durham. Durham is a creative queer, black, diverse, multicultural, intergenerational, historic city, and NorthStar is also all those things,” said Pierce Freelon, son of the founders and NorthStar’s artistic director. 

Heather Cook, a good friend of Pierce Freelon’s, had attempted to acquire the NorthStar building. But the Freelons got there first not knowing that Cook, active in arts programming for years, had her eye on it. Now she is NorthStar’s executive director. 

In 2019, more than 5,000 people attended 102 NorthStar events, generating $18,000 in ticket sales, according to numbers shared by NorthStar. Dollars are important because a primary goal is to raise money to pay local artists, Cook said. 

The venue’s website poses questions, including, “What if church was a place where artists were praised and poets were prophets?” In step with that, NorthStar hosts poets like Jaki Shelton Green and Dasan Ahanu, as well as organizations such as SpiritHouse, a longtime black-women led cultural group that supports people contending with racism, poverty and more. 

Heather Cook, NorthStar’s executive director, in her office. 9th Street Journal photo by Victoria Eavis

NorthStar also opens its doors to help people in crisis. After the Durham Housing Authority evacuated hundreds of families from unsafe McDougald Terrace last month, NorthStar became a meeting spot for volunteers trying to help displaced public housing residents and a drop-off point for food and clothing donations. 

NorthStar’s vision is guided by Durham icons like civil rights pioneer Pauli Murray, the first African-American woman to become an Episcopalian priest, and  Baba Chuck Davis, the founder of the African American Dance Ensemble. Both pushed the bounds of societal and artistic norms, Pierce Freelon said. 

“NorthStar feels very much at home being outside of the box as a celebration and a manifestation of Durham’s diverse history and future,” said Freelon, a state Senate candidate this year. “We want to uplift different prophets  that may not fit within the construct of the biblical canon,” he said. 

Angela Lee, executive director of the Hayti Heritage Center, praises what’s happening at the corner of North and Geer streets. “Their mission and what it’s doing to help to promote culture in Durham is significant,” said Lee, who runs Durham’s oldest and largest church-turned-hub for black culture. 

In year one, NorthStar had a different celebrant delivering a monthly “Sunday service” in the mornings. This year the black feminist couple Alexis Pauline Gumbs and Sangodare are NorthStar’s celebrants in residence. 

They will lead discussions of work by figures like Murray, who was also a poet, labor organizer, and activist lawyer, and Octavia Butler, the acclaimed science-fiction author. Their next service will be at 11 a.m. on Feb. 16. 

NorthStar announces its mission in many ways, including with posters. 9th Street Journal photo by Victoria Eavis

For all this momentum, NorthStar is still developing. It relies deeply on volunteers since Cook is the only employee  member. In 2020, a major goal is to hire more, Cook said.

Like all houses of worship, NorthStar is a place to confront grief as well as joy. Phil Freelon, known building designs across the United States, including the National Museum of African American History and Culture, died in July. After his funeral, the Freelon family held a reception at NorthStar.

After Freelon’s death from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), his family made clear he had hoped others would  help his family support NorthStar.

Instead of sending flowers in sympathy, his family asked mourners to donate regularly to NorthStar “so that the same creative and spiritual energies that nurtured him throughout his life, may positively impact others, especially in his adopted home of Durham.”

At top: Charly Palmer’s mixed media piece “400 Years” was among the art displayed for last month’s launch of the latest issue of the journal Southern Cultures. 9th Street Journal photo by Victoria Eavis

Correction: This story was corrected to state that Heather Cook is NorthStar Church’s of the Arts only employee.





Tragic meets festive: Memorial to hundreds lost to gun violence joins Durham holiday parade

Sidney Brodie holds his iPhone to his mouth. “What is 103 times 8 minus 1?,” he asks.

“823,” Siri answers. 

Brodie and helpers have sewn 823 cloth squares onto his Durham Homicide and Victims of Violent Death Memorial Quilt. Each name, written in puffy paint, belongs to a person killed in Durham since 1994.

The Durham native and artist keeps track of the location of each name in a digital catalog. When asked for a number, he multiplies quilt columns by rows, subtracting any empty spots. 

“What is six times eight minus three?” he asks. “45,” the phone replies. 

Brodie pauses for a moment, sighs and locks his phone. So far this year he added 45 new names to the quilt. 

On Saturday Brodie’s quilt will appear at an unlikely place: the Durham Holiday Parade

Sidney Brodie with his quilt in his Durham studio. Photo by Cameron Beach

It was not his plan to join a festive event celebrating civic groups, marching bands and Santa Claus. 

But Brenda Young, whose son Edward was shot in 2017, asked for this. And Brodie could not say no.  

“It’s strictly about the families with me here for the parade,” he said. “I know this quilt means a lot to them.” 

Edward’s full name, Edward Young III, is painted onto a green square. His mother knows exactly where to look for it. 

Young said she was inspired to include the quilt at the polular event to remind families harmed by gun violence that others remember their loved ones. 

“My son is on the quilt. And it’s Christmas time. And I know everybody is in their feelings. I just wanted to give back to the community for the ones that lost their family to gun violence,” she said. 

Displaying the quilt publicly is recent for Brodie. His stitching began as a personal project after Shaquana Atwater, a toddler, was shot in 1994. Brodie learned she was struck in crossfire while playing outside her home while he was employed as a 911 operator in Durham.

For each victim, he adds a square to the eclectic colorful display, now more than 60 feet long. The quilt’s mix of colors and fabrics is intentionally random.

“I feel like each square is as unique and imperfect and as we are as people,” Brodie said during an interview in his small Durham studio. 

With simple details, Brodie tells a powerful narrative. Black buttons are visible on some squares. Each one marks the name of a child younger than 12. Included is 9-year-old Z’yon Person who was killed in August while riding in a car with his family. 

In one row, two black and white squares are nearly identical. They are a tribute to 10-month-old Ruia Reams and her mother Zhytila Wilkins who were killed in their home in January. “Baby” and “Mama” are painted alongside their names. 

“Quilts are tangible and functionally a quilt is a comforter. It’s doing that. It’s bringing comfort to these families,” Brodie said. 

Brodie removes the quilt’s black border to add more squares or to link it to other memorials when he brings it to vigils outside Durham. Photo by Cameron Beach

In a year when lethal gun violence is increasing in Durham, Young invited other family members of people named on the quilt to help carry it Saturday. She recruited members of the Southern High School football team, emerging anti-violence activists in town, too.

Edward Young played in the marching band at Southern High School, so when she asked them to help at the parade, it was a way to honor Edward’s legacy, she said. 

Young has been busy collecting donations and saving parts of her paycheck to purchase holiday-themed gloves, scarves and hats for the helpers.   

Bringing the quilt to a parade is a first, but Brodie’s designed it to tell multiple stories. White squares with black and white checkered ribbon, for instance, represent names listed out of chronological sequence. Brodie cut shirt cuffs and sewed buttoned pieces on top of the squares.

“The dates that I missed these people are all various dates throughout the years. They were at times in my life when I was going through personal things,” he said. “I chose cuffs to symbolize that these people slipped through my hands.” 

Brodie first displayed his quilt in 2017, after Kamari Munerlyn, age 7, was shot and killed on a drive home from a swimming pool. A vigil was held days later on the side of the road a police officer had tried to revive the child with CPR. 

Brodie stitched a yellow square with the boy’s name in blue and green onto the quilt during the vigil, while Munerlyn’s mother, father and grandmother watched. He got through it by wearing sunglasses on to hide his sorrow, he said.  

Young intends to lead the quilt procession Saturday, with Edward feeling nearby. As always, she’ll wear a heart-shaped necklace carrying Edward’s name inside.

“I’m ready. I’m so ready. This is something on my heart and that I want to,” she said. 

After the parade, Brodie will wrap his quilt in shrink wrap and take it back to his studio. These days he brings the quilt to vigils against gun violence elsewhere in North Carolina and out of state. 

Back in Durham, he is always prepared, regrettably, to add more names.

At top: Some of the more than 800 names on the Durham Homicide and Victims of Violent Death Memorial Quilt. Photo by Cameron Beach

Rebecca Newton to depart from a stronger Carolina Theatre

As Rebecca Newton prepares to end her short tenure leading the Carolina Theatre of Durham, she is satisfied with what she accomplished for the downtown landmark.

“I had three objectives when I joined. Lift the profile, raise a substantial amount of money and get more of the community involved,” Newton said.

The theater’s board of trustees announced last month that Newton will retire as president and CEO of the nonprofit that runs the theater in June 2020. In her two plus years in the position, she led the theater through one of its most successful periods in the 93 years since its conception, according to a board of trustees statement. 

“I’m not the right person to take it to the next level,” Newton said of her departure in an interview at her office. The theater needs a long term person, someone who can be out on stage giving every curtain speech. But at this stage of her career, she is not that person, she explained. 

Ellen Reckhow, a member of the board of trustees at CTD as well as a Durham County Commissioner for over 30 years, is adamant that there is no animosity between Newton and the theater’s trustees. The theater has had a substantial amount of administrative turnover in the last decade and would benefit from stability with a president and CEO who can stay put the position for “at least five years,” Reckhow said. 

Rebecca Newton is well known among many in Durham due to her long local music career. A talented instrumentalist and singer, she led the popular band Rebecca & the Hi-Tones for 30 years, all while maintaining a tech career in online safety. Newton released her first solo album Blue Shirt this summer. 

Carolina Theatre saw consistent and significant growth in many dimensions of programming under her leadership. Newton helped increase the number of children who visit the downtown landmark for student programming from 10,000 kids a year to 15,000. The theater also landed the two largest development grants in history totaling $188,000. Overall attendance also increased.

The theater has not always been the thriving venue it is today. Towards the end of 2015, it stared bankruptcy in the face due to a $1.7 million dollar deficit in part because of poor accounting practices. The theater eventually reached an out of court settlement with an accounting firm, according to a 2017 Durham Herald Sun report

Rebecca Newton explaining an exhibit on segregation that existed until the early 1960s at the Carolina Theatre of Durham. Photo by Victoria Eavis

Newton said she takes pride in her ability to “pull the trigger” on decisions that are necessary for the community. For instance, when Ocracoke Island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina was left in ruins by a recent hurricane, CTD put on a benefit concert Music Folk for Ocracoke on October 14th. “It doesn’t matter if we don’t make the money sometimes. It was the right thing to do,” she said. 

Newton’s focus on the community is tied to the fact that she is a Durham native. That, she said, was a huge factor in her success at CTD. Before almost every performer, Newton gives a short curtain speech. “I go out on that stage and people say, ‘Hey, there’s someone I know.’ It’s someone from your larger family taking care of something you love,” she said.

In a WUNC-FM interview earlier this year, Newton spoke about familial difficulties during her childhood. As CEO, she took the initiative to host a free viewing of the movie Resilience and a follow up forum all in order to create an accessible space to learn about adverse childhood experiences. 

Reckhow said that Newton’s legacy will be defined by this increased versatility of the theater’s offerings. Newton turned CTD into a space not only to be entertained, but to learn about new subjects,” Reckhow said. 

Carolina Theatre, a cultural hub long before the downtown Durham’s recent renaissance, has undergone a series of renovations over the years. One project built a wall around the third balcony, making it hard to imagine there were ever seats at that level. That was where people of color were forced to sit before the theater was desegregated in the early 1960s. 

Before she departs, Newton hopes to replace this yellow wall with glass, so people will have a window into the theater’s racialized past. There is already an exhibit on the segregation of the theater on the mezzanine level, but this would be more of an experiential display that forces patrons to confront exactly how people of color were once marginalized within the walls of the theater. 

Upon retiring from CTD, Newton hopes to keep bringing the local community together. Lighting up, Newton describes work with a partner to create “a sort of Durham City Limits that promotes local curated musicians… the ones who are on the cusp of going big time.”

Always the organizer, Newton has already rented performance space at the Carolina Theatre of Durham for some of these artists.

At top: Rebecca Newton inside the Carolina Theatre of Durham. Photo by Victoria Eavis